Koh Lao - Moken Village

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November 9th 2008
Published: March 9th 2009
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 Video Playlist:

1: Moken Village, Koh Lao, Thailand 26 secs
2: The Koh Loa Krew! 13 secs
The Moken, also known as Sea Gypsies, are a diverse ethnic group living in Thailand, Myanmar & Malaysia and are considered stateless people - not having citizenship within any country.

I sail to Koh Lao, an island about 4 km off the coast from Ranong, and stay 2 nights at a Moken village after being invited by an NGO named 'The Mirror foundation’. Taking a long boat from the pier takes around 30 minutes to arrive at Koh Lao. On arrival, we are invited to have lunch with a local family. After a delicious meal of various kinds of fish, the topic of conversation changed.

It is translated to me by a member of 'The Mirror Foundation' that the Moken fishermen make dangerous journeys across the Andaman Ocean into Indian and Burmese waters to earn a living and risk their lives in doing so. They’re often fired upon by soldiers who also use explosives to destroy their boats, forcing people to jump into the deep open ocean waters. A Moken fisherman tells me of one disastrous event from last year when 7 people survived 4 days at sea by clinging to petrol containers and pieces of foam after their boat was destroyed by Burmese soldiers. I’m also shown a photograph of a young boy who was killed by Indian soldiers near the Nicobar Islands last year.

If Moken fishermen are caught in Myanmar waters they can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. Sometimes even shot on the spot. Life is dangerous for the Moken fishermen. Boys are now accompanying them on their long difficult trips at sea to be used as deterrents against attacks. As I was listening, I imagine how for hundreds of years his ancestors had fished in those waters. Now generations later, and illegal to do so, they risk their lives to support their families.

The Moken are excellent swimmers. One of our hosts shows me a 50-metre rubber hose he uses for diving and spearfishing. A pump on the boat supplies air as he dives down to depths up to 50 metres while holding the hose in his mouth. Sometimes when the children of the village are refused permission to go to visit Ranong by boat, they sneak out at night and swim the 4 km to the mainland, putting their clothes in a plastic bag to keep them dry. For generations, the Moken have spent up to 80% of their lives living in their boats on the ocean. Being able to swim well is a necessity for survival. They also possess the uncanny ability to know exactly where the fish are without the use of sonar.

After lunch, I go for a walk around the peninsular and see women fill large containers of water from a natural spring, only available during certain times of the year, and carry the containers weighing up to 15 kgs on their heads back to the village. There’s a lot of litter in the village and along the beach. Washed up from the cities on the mainland or thrown overboard from fishing boats. There is no waste removal or rubbish disposal here and there’s broken glass on the ground, a hazard for the children who don't wear shoes.

Construction had begun for fifty new houses on the island three months ago, funded mostly by private donations. But now the money is depleted, so the men are learning the necessary skills to finish the job themselves. No one can move into houses until all the buildings are finished. There are about sixty families (300 people) desperately waiting to move into their new homes. The new houses must be built as soon as possible. There’s another village on the other side of the island that is mostly Thai and Muslim. It’s more modern than this Moken village and is where the children go to school. But due to poverty, it’s difficult for them to attend regularly. Most Moken families are quite large having up to seven children. The kids smile at me curiously as I wander around the village. Many of them have runny noses and colds. Mothers dole out cough syrup to treat symptoms.

Stopping to watch two boys flying their homemade kites, I meet a Thai man named Vichai who has been residing here since the tsunami. Originally from Bangkok, he’s been distributing basic medicines to the villagers. He seems sincere and is dedicated enough to stay on the island to help full-time. There are currently three NGOs here at the moment. I was invited to visit by 'The Mirror Foundation’ which is also involved with other projects on the nearby Islands of Koh Chang and Koh Payam. There’s a peaceful feeling here and the people are friendly, even if the living conditions seem quite bad.

Old bamboo huts balance precariously on stilts along the shoreline. Built about thirty years ago, they now seem like they’re about to crumble into the ocean at any moment. At night, I sleep on the mattress-less floor and listen to the sounds of village life. From inside the hut, I hear the waves crashing against the sand underneath me and the wind slapping the loosened iron sheet roofing against the walls. Babies are crying, dogs are barking, and right next to my ear a rooster is crowing.

In the morning after a breakfast of coffee and fried bananas, I walk to a well in the jungle about 800 metres behind the village. There, the women spend their mornings washing clothes and collecting water. Later on, I recognise many of the women from the well, now sitting at tables, relaxing and playing cards. While taking photos of the children playing, one of the babies is crawling naked through the rubbish. He’s finally noticed by his mother and promptly retrieved.

Staff from 'The Mirror Foundation' are working on one of the unfinished houses, so I spend a few hours helping them. It seems like such a haphazard process as everyone is learning on the go. It’d be finished in a matter of weeks by qualified tradesmen. We only make a slight dent in the workload. In two weeks a team of 10 people will be coming to help complete the project. Looking out over the ocean from on top of the unfinished structure, I see both the land of Myanmar to the left and Thailand to the right. As the Moken people have no citizenship for either country, it seems a symbolic place to be, stuck in the middle.

Chickens, geese and dogs run freely around the village and the day goes quickly. But in the evening, I’m struck again by the excessive amount of rubbish that’s accumulated in the village. I can't help but wonder, with all the animals that defecate on the ground, there are bound to be health issues.

Today was overcast and hot. It’s cooler now so we gather at the back of the village in a giant sandpit and kick a soccer ball about. There’s lots of laughter as we play, and a sense of calm settles over the community as the sun slowly goes down. After taking a bath in a steel drum of cold water I return to the hut for dinner. Nine family members are living in this small two-room bamboo hut - six children, their parents and the grandparents. Not a mattress in sight. There’s not much verbal conversation over dinner, due to the language barrier but there are big smiles and laughter as I’m made to feel welcome. The fish curry is delicious but I add a little too much chilli and launch into a barrage of hiccups, which everyone finds very amusing.

After dinner, there’s a community meeting discussing the current financial situation. Funds are depleted, the houses remain unfinished and debts are to be repaid. A man from another NGO suggests they cut down the Mangrove trees on the island instead of buying expensive timber from Ranong. People are desperate for solutions. So much could be done to improve the infrastructure here with just a few thousand dollars. The new staff members from 'Mirror' and myself are presented to the gathered crowd. I’m introduced as “a man from Australia, which is near Timor”, and this brings a big laugh. I hesitantly take the microphone and nervously say “Thank you, I’m happy to be here and to be welcomed by so many friendly faces”. Looking down I see a tiny figure staring up at me with bemused wide eyes. A little girl, whom I imagine is wondering, "who is this strange-looking man and what the hell is he talking about?" Everyone applauds and laughs. The meeting continues for about two hours. I’m not sure of the outcome but everyone is tired. I return to the bamboo hut to try and get some sleep.

During the night, I have strange dreams, interjected every hour or so with startling loud proclamations from my unwanted friend - the ear rooster. The night brings many unwanted sounds as did the previous night. Upon waking, I take a few moments to appreciate my surroundings. My Moken hosts are kind enough to share their time, their food, and their floor with me. Staying with them for the past two nights has quickly made me realise just how easy I have it back home near Timor.

I feel helpless in the morning as we leave Koh Lao and it's raining. I’ve only experienced such a small aspect of village life but I will never forget the smiling faces of the children. Kids, who perhaps aren't so aware of the social or political problems their parents face? Amid hardship, everyone expressed only warmth to me.

It takes only thirty minutes to arrive back at Ranong. And we are soaking wet from the rain. Geographically, Koh Lao is not far from Ranong but is a world away. After saying goodbye to the friendly staff from the Mirror Foundation, I walk slowly back to my guest house in the rain reflecting on the past few days.

The Thai government has recently approved Koh Lao to be a permanent settlement for the Moken people but issued only temporary five-year visas. Without citizenship status, the Moken still don't have certain rights and are unable to receive the medical benefits they need.

Before I went to Koh Lao, I knew absolutely nothing about the Moken peoples plight or culture. Everyone deserves human rights, that in some countries are taken for granted, and access to health care, clean drinking water, basic housing, electricity and the freedom to make a living to support their family. There are only 3,000 Moken people left, inhabiting both Myanmar and Thailand. In Thailand alone, only 700 people are living on the coastal islands from Ranong to Phuket. To date, only seventy people from that 700 have been granted citizenship.

"We must re-evaluate the relevance of indigenous knowledge to our spiritually and environmentally turbulent modern lives, and, in recognising its intrinsic value, take immediate actions to honour and protect Native cultures around the world."

Peter Knudtson & David Suzuki (Wisdom of the Elders)

More info:

ActionAid Thailand: www.actionaid.org/thailand

Sustainable Development Foundation: www.sdfthai.org

The Mirror Foundation: www.moken.org

Save Andaman Network: www.saape.org.np

Additional photos below
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11th October 2011

Hey, Very interesting blog. I was wondering if you had further research on the Moken that you have come across. I am a student at Eastern University in PA studying Economic Development. I am planning on doing a research paper on the Moken people that relates to hunger, land and identity. If you have any info let me know Thanks John Q III

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